Kevin: So CJ you and I just took part in a pretty historic event: we saw a Bruce Willis movie in an actual movie theater! That’s right, for the first time in what feels like forever, a Bruce Willis movie didn’t go pretty much directly to VOD, it had higher-quality costars than 50 Cent, Kellan Lutz, or Johnathon Schaech, and Bruce appeared in almost every scene, wore different outfits, and went to multiple locations, rather than his usual output where he wears one suit or uniform and films all his scenes from the same office set so he can be finished in a day and collect $3 million. So before we get to our thoughts on the film, let’s acknowledge the new “Death Wish” for at least helping make this momentous occasion happen:
CJ: I was just as stunned as you. Early on during a scene at his daughter’s soccer game, I had to do a double-take because I just assumed he would somehow be sitting in an office chair and the outside would be greenscreened in. I also now picture a world in which once Bruce has decided he’s sitting in his chair, the movie needs to be written to accommodate this. Even if he was in “Jurassic Park.” Or “Speed.”
Kevin: I was going to ask what was the last Bruce movie you saw in the theaters until I remembered that for both of us it was “Red 2,” although I didn’t catch a lot of that one because I was so distracted by the loud couple a few rows down who I eventually got kicked out, in one of my favorite Alamo Drafthouse memories (and as far as I’m concerned they were just as deserving of Bruce’s merciless punishment as anyone in “Death Wish”).
CJ: At first I thought this was a joke, but then I looked at his IMDB and it’s actually true. That’s five years.
Kevin: Of course we are not just talking about Bruce’s return to the big screen here; any remake of “Death Wish” is going to come with a lot of pre-conceptions and baggage, but the fact that it is being released into such a polticized climate means the movie is going to be under extra scrutiny by critics on both sides trying to discern its message, such as it is. Before we get into our thoughts on the film, I figured I’d list some differences between the Charles Bronson original and Bruce’s remake to see how things have changed since 1974:
The original came out at a time when violent crime was rampant in New York, which was why fed-up audiences in the Big Apple reportedly cheered every time Bronson gunned down another potential mugger. The remake comes at a weird time in which more citizens own guns and crime has been down across the board for the last couple of decades, yet mass shootings and inner-city gang violence are seemingly on the rise. In light of the recent Parkland High School shooting, you could view parts of the remake as a satire on the easy availability of guns in America; or with the reports that officers on the scene hid behind their cars during the shooting, you could view the new “Death Wish” as a timely endorsement of armed self reliance rather than dependence on the authorities. See, it’s a movie for everyone!
The original Paul Kersey was also a self-described liberal and a conscientious objector in the Korean War. Bruce obviously don’t play like that, so we hear hints from his brother (played by Vincent D’Onfrio) that he had a tough streak before eventually mellowing out with marriage and fatherhood. There is a scene where he gets into it with some asshole soccer dad during a game, and while another movie would have had Kersey cowardly slink away, Bruce kind of does the thing where you de-escalate while still maintaining eye contact so as not to seem like you’re backing down. Ironically, despite his initial aversion to violence, Bronson is established as more knowledgeable about guns and a better shot, while Bruce has to watch some YouTube videos and shoot a Yield sign a few times before he achieves John McClane-style accuracy.
CJ: I had a different take on Bruce de-escalating the situation. His character is a prominent surgeon, loans his brother money, has an amazing house, and talks about his daughter going to college with no mention of a need for a scholarship. Clearly he is loaded. In today’s society where we need the Good Samaritan law because crazy people sue you for pulling them out of a burning car and accidentally breaking their arm in the process, I assume Bruce kept his calm because he figured this d-bag was just going to sue him for justifyingly kicking the shit out of him for cursing at a girl’s high school soccer match.
Also, there is a semi montage where we see Bruce get marginally better at shooting his gun. And by marginally, I mean he continues to miss a sign he shoots at, finally hits it once, and then walks out of there like “I’m ready.” I also felt like his very gradual improvement was akin to a Viagra commercial, where at first nothing works, and then all of a sudden the football goes through the tire once. Okay, time to fuck.
Kevin: Now Bronson’s Kersey was an architect, but unlike every other architect in a Hollywood movie, he is not rich and doesn’t have abundant free time to engage in romantic comedy hijinks. Actually except for “Death Wish 3,” in every other film in the series he is usually back in the office working on some blueprints even right after the death of a family member or having blown up a drug lord with a rocket launcher the previous evening. The remake smartly makes Bruce a surgeon, which gives him up a close-up look at Chicago’s gun violence problem, while also giving him the necessary medical skills to draw upon when he is injured or inflicting pain on one of his wife’s killers in a gruesome torture sequence.
Speaking of, the original “Death Wish” had zero Mike Epps, while the remake has one scene with Mike Epps, in this case as one of Bruce’s fellow surgeons (which, sure, whatever you say “Death Wish”). I’m assuming they meant to cast Omar Epps, and once they realized their mistake they were too embarrassed to tell Mike the truth, so they just let him act out his scenes but only the turned the camera on once.
CJ: How do you think Mike Epps reacted to being cut out? Does he even know? Like, did he go to the theater with his friends all excited about being in a Bruce Willis movie, and now all his friends do is make fun of him whenever they debate anything? “Sure Mike, that’s the investment I should get in on … did you learn about this while making that Bruce Willis movie you kept talking about but didn’t seem to be in?”
Kevin: In the original, Kersey’s wife and daughter are beaten and sexually assaulted during an excruciatingly long sequence. Knowing Eli Roth’s track record, I think we were queasily curious about how he would handle this scene, but it’s surprisingly tasteful, for lack of a better word. There’s no sexual assault, and Kersey’s wife and daughter are shot off screen. Unlike Bronson’s daughter, who is so traumatized she becomes practically comatose (and has even worse shit to look forward to in “Death Wish 2,” which we’ll get to this week), Bruce’s daughter has a Steven Seagal/”Hard to Kill”-like recovery from a weeks-long coma, and is back on her feet and enrolled at NYU seemingly within days. Also, Bruce’s daughter is super hot and somehow escaped the dreaded “Willis chin” that is usually genetically dominant in all his offspring.
CJ: I did laugh when her uncle asks how her rehab is going, and she says she’s learning how to do basic things again. This is as she has no trouble twirling a fork around as she eats a salad. The only thing that would have been better would have been had she gotten up to go to bed and backflipped to the stairs.
Kevin: Bronson’s Kersey gets his gun from a 2nd Amendment-loving client in Arizona, who seems weirdly obsessed with turning Kersey into a vigilante whether he wants to be or not. Also, anyone who thinks the remake is some kind of ad for the NRA should get a load of the dialogue here such as: “This is gun country. Can’t even own a handgun in New York City, out here I hardly know a man that doesn’t own one. And I’ll tell you something, unlike your city, we can walk our streets and through our parks at night and feel safe. Muggers operating out here just plain get their asses blown off!”
Bruce has a much shorter equivalent scene in the remake, as his wife’s rancher father in Texas extols the virtues of protecting your family and property rather than relying on the cops, after he shoots at some poachers on his land (do poachers still exist in 2018?). And while he looks into buying a weapon legally early on, the gun Bruce uses for most of his shootings is an untraceable Glock that conveniently falls out of the pocket of a gang member on Bruce’s table.
CJ: Did they ever explain what those guys in the field were doing? We see them hovering over a dear and it looks like part of the dear has been ripped out. So, are they doing black market deer kidney work? Were they stealing meat? Either way, the deer was still alive, and I was genuinely disturbed for a couple of minutes after that. I also was weirded out about how gramps just coldly shoots the deer while making his speech. Again, a deer is lying there with half of it ripped out. Maybe be like “Hey, I’ve got a speech for you, but let me just put this thing out of its misery first.” Nope, the old man really draws this speech out, and the only thing missing was the dying cries of the deer while I rock back and forth covering my ears screaming “Make it stop already!”
Kevin: Bronson’s Kersey never actually comes across his wife’s killers (including a young Jeff Goldblum in the role he was born to play) and instead takes out his rage on random muggers, while outside of a couple of vigilante killings early on, Bruce spends most of the second half tracking down the three men who assaulted his family. While I would have liked to have seen a montage of Bruce shooting random criminals, or anyone who just plain annoyed him (like the asshole soccer dad or the homeless squeegee guy), it would be a lot harder in 2018 to explain how someone like Bruce could keep gunning people down in public without being filmed by a security camera or cell phone. Plus it also preemptively addresses the “problematic!” criticisms which I’ll get into below.
CJ: I’d prefer if Bruce just recreated the opening dancing sequence from “Baby Driver” and shot people at random:
Kevin: While the original charts Kersey’s rising urban legend through various news reports and press conferences, the remake posits Chicago as a depressing dystopia in which the only two sources of news are Sway and Mancow in the Morning (Sway is on Sirius XM, but apparently everyone in the city has a subscription). I seriously think Sway and Mancow should have had second and third billing considering how much screentime they have. But at least they really add some nuanced commentary to the discussion, usually along the lines of, “Yo, I don’t know, maybe it’s good that this guy is killing bad people, but maybe it’s not. You guys tell us, call in if you think The Grim Reaper is a hero or zero.” Although I would have loved to see a scene where Bruce is listening and writing down the names of all the people who called him a zero to murder later.
The original also has a bizarrely comedic montage where we see various regular New Yorkers inspired by Kersey’s example and fighting back against criminals themselves. The remake has a quick shot of an apparent copycat vigilante getting gunned down while trying to stop a robbery, but this doesn’t seem to trouble Bruce or cause him to question his actions, and the movie never brings it up again, so I’m not sure why they bothered.
And whereas Kersey ends the original “Death Wish” moving from New York to Chicago (man I’d love to see the look on the average New Yorker’s face in 1974 upon hearing that someday their city would be the much safer alternative in a “Death Wish” movie), Bruce ends the remake by going the other direction. Although I would be interested to know what kind of hit he took on the selling price of his house, considering his wife was murdered in the kitchen and three other people were machine-gunned to death later on as well.
CJ: Potential buyer: Why are you selling the house?
Bruce: Definitely not because it harbors the memories of my wife’s murder, daughter’s near rape and ensuring coma, and my last stand where I murdered multiple intruders coming to finish the job. The roof is new.
Kevin: However, the biggest difference between the two movies is in their use of location. The original “Death Wish” is the perfect time capsule for everything wrong with New York at the time, and the city itself is portrayed as just as scary as any of the muggers Bronson encounters. Whereas while they make some pointed commentary about the gang violence problem in Chicago, in most respects the remake could take place anywhere. Bruce does take out a few urban criminals early on, but again most of his concern is for finding the men who killed his wife.
Of course this opens the door for critics to claim the movie is celebrating a vigilante who only cares about crime when it intrudes into his rich suburban enclave. But if you had a version where Bruce spends the entire movie taking out gang members preying on their community, critics would say the movie is advocating for a gun-toting white savior to clean up the inner city. As it is, the movie in its current form is being savaged as a mindless celebration of a “good guy with a gun,” but deep down isn’t that what most action movies are? Honestly, other than some feints toward topicality, what’s the difference between this version of “Death Wish” and, say, “John Wick,” except for the fact that the “John Wick” films contain far more gun violence and fetishization of weaponry, and yet aren’t judged as if they are some sort of litmus test about society?
All this is to say that despite the critical consensus, this is not a 14 percent movie. There were obviously many areas in which an Eli Roth-directed remake of “Death Wish” could have gone horribly wrong, but at the end of the day it’s better than it has any right to be. It’s mostly successful at navigating between being a serious film and a crowd-pleasing action flick, it has some amusing “Robocop”-style humor and gore, and Bruce gives a thoughtful and committed performance. It’s good enough that I wish some parts were even better, such as a climactic home invasion that could have been a really tense and drawn-out set piece, but which is over almost as soon as it starts. Although the movie does perfectly nail the final shot of Kersey imagining himself with another perp in his sights.
Ironically, if the film actually was the right-wing fascist fantasy that many critics are calling it, at least it would be more memorable. Or to put it another way, what’s the point of trying not to offend if people are still gonna be offended no matter what?
Before we wrap up, do you have any final thoughts CJ? Or to put it in Mancow terms, “Death Wish” remake: hero or zero?
CJ: Mostly hero. Although as we both noted, it’s not so much that it was good, it’s just that it wasn’t bad. Kinda like murdering drug dealers.
I have a question about Mancow though (boy there’s a sentence I never thought I would ever say). I looked him up, and he got his nickname because once in a play he portrayed a half man, half animal (which I assume was a cow). Still though, why would anyone KEEP that nickname? At least go with “ManTopGun” or “ManWhoGenerouslyPleasuresTheLadiesAndThenReadsToThem.”
I also must say, I do love how the detective on the case (Uncle Hank from “Breaking Bad”) does two things. First, he notices the man out for vigilante justice (aka The Grim Reaper, aka Bruce Willis), shoot with his left hand. Later on, he notices that Bruce’s brother is left-handed and assumes he is the killer. He is obviously a bad detective, and this probably why early in the movie we see he has a giant posterboard of unsolved cases.
Later, after it’s all said and done and it becomes clearer that The Grim Reaper was Bruce (because The Grim Reaper wears hoodies and Bruce wears clothes), the detective goes “So, you’re telling me this injury to your hand that has clearly been healing for weeks, and this stitched up bullet wound in your shoulder, both happened tonight?” Bruce says yes, then mentions he won’t use his gun anymore, and the detective is all “ok, nothing to see.” Now, at this point we all agree it’s a “wink wink, I’ll let you get away with these seven murder just this once” sort of thing, but we have to admit detective Hank needs to be fired, right?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m on his side and I’m glad Bruce is left to go free, as killing drug dealers is a-ok in my book, but logically, no. I look forward to a few months down the road and Sway is talking about a new vigilante killer in NYC, and our poor detective realizes he basically created a hybrid Batman/Joker.
Finally, I’d like to get back to Vincent D’Onofrio. Has anyone else noticed that he really only plays two roles: “Horrible Insane Person” and “Brother”? That doesn’t happen unless there is something about you that doesn’t sit right with people when they meet you. My guess is he is not the big timer at D’Onofrio family reunions, more of a creepy black sheep. He’s running after his nephews and nieces all “No, seriously, I was in ‘Jurassic World’! I know Christ Pratt! I’m in a huge Marvel show on Netflix!,” and his sister has to go “Vinny, please, the children are crying.”